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Sunday, March 13, 2011

How I survived the Japanese earthquake (Includes first-hand account) by Mark Weitzman

Tokyo - An hour before the 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Japan, I was at home, in my Tokyo apartment, on the second floor of a five-floor ferro-concrete apartment built in the late 1980s and which met all the quake construction codes at the time.

Many buildings in Japan are of similar construction.

You've heard that Japan has the highest amount of earthquake activity in the world. Technically, quakes are happening all the time, but their magnitude is so low we can't feel them. Usually, quakes that we can sense end after :05-:10 seconds.

There's not even time to react. The magnitude 4 and 5 quakes can be distressing. Sometimes they build slowly and end in a jolt. Sometimes it's just one big jolt. We rarely feel aftershocks. Japanese are "used to" quakes, but *not* used quakes of this magnitude.

At the start of this big quake, I knew it was going to be different. It didn't end when it was "supposed to" end. It was a long quake - you may have heard 4- 5 minutes from the first tremors to the "end".
Everything was rattling. My heavy 27-inch iMac desktop computer jerked toward the edge of my desk.
As the quake progressed, I got up from my desk and stood in a doorway. I could see out the balcony window and watched the light poles and telephone poles and power lines shaking violently.
My apartment building shook from side. I felt dizzy. It was noisy.

The shaking got more violent, and I got under the dining table. I rested my head on the chair seat. The adrenalin was rushing and I was telling myself not to panic. In the recent New Zealand quake hundreds were killed, including 28 Japanese nationals. That has been nightly news here in Japan. That quake was on my mind.

Tucked under the table, all that can be done is wait for the quake to end. Finally, the shaking stopped.
I crawled out from under the table, stunned. I looked outside, and stepped onto the balcony and surveyed this quiet residential neighborhood. Some carpenters who had been working on a new house down the street were standing in the center of the street. A couple other passers-by were in the street too, just standing there. I could hear an emergency announcement being broadcast (Japanese only) from the strategically located loudspeakers in the neighborhood

Other than that, I could not see any damage up and down the 3 streets I can see. It looked normal.
Then, the first aftershock hit. It felt just like the initial quake, and I went back under the table.
There would be one more aftershock that caused me to return to my spot under the table.
It felt like this quake was The Big One, but not occurring directly under Tokyo.

The cell phone system was immediately out of service, and I heard that landlines were functioning, but I couldn't get through to my wife's store. But here weren't any sirens and no commotion nearby, and I could see the mall's department store and site from my balcony, so I assumed they were all okay.
The landline started ringing about 90 minutes after the quake. Mobile phones shortly after. Family members "checking in". All are well.

From that point, it has been quiet and normal in my area. Probably you've seen some video of damages in Tokyo. Still, the damage is minimal compared to the destruction of the tsunami.
Part of a Costco store fell down in Machida, located between Kawasaki and Tokyo. Machida is about 20 miles from my residence in Tokyo.

In Tokyo, the damage seems to be mostly indoors, things flying off shelves, falling off tables. My file folders and some knickknacks fell over. Yokohama took some major hits.
What also happens here is that any TV crew that was out doing a story and that by chance gets video of the quake in progress, sends that video in immediately and we see lots of unedited shots of the quake causing destruction.

There is a dramatic shot of the sidewalk jutting up in front of a building in Yokohama.
The worst area is Northern Japan, Sendai, the tsunami. By now you've seen much of the video.
Live video from an aircraft that was tracking the advance of the first Sendai tsunami was being broadcast. I watched that tsunami hit the coast and sweep across the land, watched it live.
Tens of thousands of people in Tokyo and throughout Japan could not get home from work, because all the trains had stopped and all the tracks had to be inspected before the trains could get going again.
Luckily, Japan prepares for exactly this scenario, and emergency measures are in place. There's an annual Earthquake Preparedness Day here. There's always some type of earthquake readiness drill going in any given community at any time. So event arenas were opened, emergency kits distributed. Thousands stayed in emergency shelters overnight.

The public broadcasting system provides multi-language live emergency announcements on TV, radio and web broadcasting. There's methods to get information by email to a PC or mobile phone. There's after-quake systems in place too.

My wife came home early. The entire mall shut down early. She told me the power went off there (but not here at home) and she and her staff, instead of wisely taking cover, stood in front of the shelves and used their hands and arms to prevent items from falling off. She said she and the staff were frozen in fear. She said she heard goods tumbling off shelves in the other shops.

Watching the news last night, around 9:30 an earthquake prediction alert pops up on-screen and the special warning beeps are heard– another quake is coming in 10 seconds!
This after a day of aftershocks. My wife immediately jumps up and turns off the gas room-heater.
It was then I realized that when I dived under the dining table earlier in the day, I'd not performed the basic tasks: turn off the gas at the main in the kitchen (the switch is easy to access in homes and apartments), open a door.

While I was under the table, the gas heater kept on heating the living room.
After the 1995 Kobe quake, the government emergency response didn't do too well. So the public got even more serious about quakes. Since 1995, we've been prepared to hit the road with our earthquake backpacks, or to "shelter in place".

The nearest evacuation area is just a few hundred meters from our apartment.
We had 2 more aftershocks that I could feel overnight, and a totally new quake unrelated to the original.
As of Noon, March 12 in Tokyo, there have been more than 50 aftershocks, and the other quake which had occurred near Nagano, in central Japan.
Source: Digital Journal
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